Five before Midnight

This site is dedicated to the continuous oversight of the Riverside(CA)Police Department, which was formerly overseen by the state attorney general. This blog will hopefully play that role being free of City Hall's micromanagement.
"The horror of that moment," the King went on, "I shall never, never forget." "You will though," the Queen said, "if you don't make a memorandum of it." --Lewis Carroll

Contact: fivebeforemidnight@yahoo.com

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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Long, Hot Summer of '97

Lake Evans, "Safe Haven"?



"A lot of bad stuff happened here. It's as good a place as any for it to end."
--Bud White, L.A. Confidential

No one can agree who the first person thrown into Lake Evans by Riverside Police Department officers was, or the last, but everyone can agree on which incident was the most notorious. Lake Evans has woven itself into the fabric of Riverside's history, including that of its police department, but this incident stood out on its own, for different reasons. The incident involved Jose Martinez Rodriguez, three or four police officers depending on who provides the accounts and a date with serious misconduct of a criminal kind under the moonlight, on a hot summer night at Fairmont Park in 1997.

Back Story:

Police officers tend to refer to this incident as the one involving the "two Black officers who beat and tossed the guy into the lake" when in actuality, as most of us in the general public know, there was at least a third officer who was White who actively participated in the beating and its coverup. His participation in this travesty might have been erased by those in the RPD, but not by those in the community. It was three officers who engaged in the beating and attempted drowning of a Latino man, and all three of them should have seen the inside of a jail cell. However, none of them ever did...unless you count the short stint served by Graham, only after the D.A.'s office caught him assigned to work detail rather than serving time in jail.

Another argument tossed out by police officers in the department was that this incident was an example of Affirmative Action gone bad, or as an argument against hiring Black officers in the department. But they are wrong, and anyone who has read the biannual Equal Employment Opportunity Reports for the past 15 years will know that the department has hired few Black officers.

But they are right in the sense that an Affirmative Action program of sorts was in place within the police department. Only, the program centered around athletic talent, preferably that shown on the gridiron. When Philip Graham was hired by the department, it was not just to be a police officer in the field, but a star on the field, as well. You see, Graham was the son of Tom Graham, the former star player for the Denver Broncos, and was himself a star defensiveback at Colorado State University.

He was recruited by then Officer Duane Beckman, according to a March 14, 1996 article in the Press Enterprise to play football for the department's intramural team. When the reporter who wrote that article asked Beckman if the stories about Graham's background and hiring were true, Beckman said:

"You bet. This is serious stuff."

According to that PE article, the RPD had competition for Graham's football skills: The Riverside County Sheriff's Department. Graham had done some time there before being hired by Riverside PD who put him to work...including on the gridiron. When asked by the PE reporter of the March 14, 1995 article about his prowness on the football field, Graham said:

"When you put the helmet and gear on, you are not out there to play patty cake."

Indeed, you are not. This philosophy was transferred by Graham in his police work, each time he put on his badge and gun. Only two years later, the department would see how "serious" Graham was, when he and two other officers became involved into what is now called, The Lake Incident.

THE OFFICERS:

Graham, was viewed by those in the department as "mild mannered" and a respected member of the SWAT team, which he belonged to, despite only having been in the department six years.

Graham, Tommie Sykes and Jason McQueen collectively were known as "good, young cops who looked out for one another and answered supervisors with the words, 'yes sir'. Graham and McQueen were both members of the department's Honor Guard.

McQueen had been with the department a little over five years when the incident happened. The only noted blemish on his record was a car accident he had experienced onduty which led to a young man on a motorcycle suffering serious injuries including a broken back. The city eventually issued a $1.75 million settlement in relation to the accident.

Sykes was hired out of the United States Air Force where he had worked as a pharmacist and had been working with the department about four years.

THE VICTIM: Jose Martinez Rodriguez, a 59 year old legal immigrant who worked as a laborer who on one job had helped in the construction of Zacateca's restaurant, a centerpiece in the Eastside neighborhood. His neighbors described him as a quiet, helpful person whose attitude changed completely after his beating at the hands of the officers.

THE PLACE: A departmentally designated "safe haven" for inebriated people known as Lake Evans.

NARRATIVE:

The first notice of the incident in the Press Enterprise occurred in an article written in July 1997 which detailed the OTHER beating of a civilian by an officer resulting in a prosecution that occurred that summer. That involved a White officer, Robert Mauger who hit a teenager named Jerry Maroney who was handcuffed at the time, first on the scene and then while he was being booked. The officers involved in the Lake Evans incident were mentioned in that article, but not named. That would come over six months later after two of the three officers involved in the case entered guilty pleas in exchange for wrist slaps in Riverside County Superior Court.

The story broke in the Jan. 29, 1998 edition of the Press Enterprise when it was announced that Graham, Sykes and McQueen had picked up Jose Martinez Rodriquez from University Avenue and taken him to Fairmount Park to "sleep it off" and instead, beat him, stomped him and threw him in the lake. Martinez climbed his way out of the lake, hid in the foliage until he was sure his abusers had left, then walked home.

Within days of the beating, rumors swirled around the department and officers began asking the three officers about what they had done. Investigators from Internal Affairs and the General Investigations Bureau launched inquiries into the incident, which lasted longer than three months. The department however, remained perusual tight lipped on the matter to those outside its ranks. That worked until Graham became involved in his second assault and battery of the season, this time at a bar-restaurant hybrid known as Carlos O'Brian.

In this incident that occurred Sept. 27, 1997, Graham, Sykes and another White officer allegedly had appeared at the door of the bar already heavily intoxicated and were initially refused entrance...until they flashed the bouncers their badges. The doormen allowed the three men and their entourage to enter, and were quickly rewarded for that favor, by Graham who proceeded to assault a female patron and two bouncers who had intervened to stop him. Graham pulled a gun on one of them, and allegedly forced him on the ground, and the gun in his mouth, breaking the bouncer's teeth. Another bouncer suffered injuries in his altercation with the violently intoxicated Graham, including a broken wrist.

According to then-chief Jerry Carroll who had slipped in the revolving door of the department's administration and had been in charge all of about three months before all this happened, there were no 9-11 calls made from the bar in relation to this incident.

However, someone had to pick up Graham, and according to witnesses, two officers appeared and told Graham that if he went quietly, they would not tell the sergeant what happened. Graham was not willing to cooperate with that rather generous offer, so the officers arrested him. He was later charged with two felonies including brandishing a firearm and assault with a deadly weapon.

Of course, the public was left completely in the dark about this incident as well for many months. In hindsight, few people were surprised about the department's decision to do that.

After the Lake Incident, the Riverside County District Attorney's office in a rare display of zeal decided to convene a grand jury, and they went to Jason McQueen(the White officer) to testify but McQueen wanted no part of breaking that code of silence rule until the office granted him full immunity from prosecution. So, McQueen testified abeit reluctantly to the Grand Jury. He was followed by Sykes who also invoked the Fifth Amendment before the D.A. offered him partial immunity in exchange for his testimony. Later, the D.A.'s office would reward Sykes for his efforts by offering him an even lighter slap on the wrist than they would give to Graham.

McQueen testified first, and his words should put to end any assertion that this incident was solely a Black on Hispanic crime, because it turned out, McQueen was on equal footing with Graham when it came to participating in the beating at the lake, while Sykes's participation was actually less than that of the other two officers. If you do not believe that, go back and read McQueen's account of the incident in his own words, under threat of perjury.

McQueen's Story:

Press Enterprise feb. 18, 1998


McQueen testified that on July 5, he had worked a two-man car with his partner and friend, Graham, when they encountered what they saw as an inebriated male Latino walking down University Avenue. It was 11pm, seven hours into their 4pm to 2am shift and both men were tired and hungry and on their way to an anticipated date with a third officer at the McDonalds restaurant on the corner of Eucalyptus Avenue and University. It was not to be, at least not right away.

McQueen and Graham turned around to stop Martinez, and even without doing a breathalizer test, they concluded he was drunk and that they would have to delay their rendevouz with Mickey Ds to arrest him. Instead, they decided to take him to what they called a "safe haven" at Fairmount Park to allow him to sleep it off. They parked their squad car at a dark spot about 100 yards away from the American Legion Hall. Martinez had struggled, yelled and cursed at them, McQueen said.

"He had gotten my goat."

McQueen gave as his excuse for beating Martinez, four years of rage at having been yelled at by civilians. It was for him, excuse enough. The D.A. thanked him for his testimony by not charging him and the department allowed him to resign on Dec. 10, without being fired.

So he and Graham beat and hit Martinez, until he was on the ground. Then, Graham stomped on Martinez's chest with his boot. Both officers assisted by a third(Sykes) then picked up Martinez, swung him two or three times, then tossed him into the lake.

Afterwards, they discussed what to do, with McQueen saying they should arrest him.

"We got to do something about this, because you know this is not going well."

They left the lake and went to McDonalds to eat but the conversation was not centered on anything pleasant, McQueen said.

According to McQueen, he, Graham and Sykes got together to meet to discuss the beating during several onduty meetings afterwards. Just to say when asked that they weren't at such and such when such and such happened, if anyone happened to come to them and ask.

The Victim's story:

Martinez naturally was not called before the Grand Jury to testify about his experience at the hands(and feet) of these officers, because he was a civilian who had 6-8 beers, so he imagined the whole experience, of course. At least until it was collaborated first by McQueen and then Sykes in their testimonies.

Martinez did tell his account in a Feb. 20 Press Enterprise article. He said that he was walking home from a bar after having some beers when he saw two squad cars stop in front of him. Out of one of the cars, came one Black officer and one White officer. He thought at first he was going to jail, then after he realized they were going some place else, he thought he was going to die. At the park, he was hit six times and then felt a knee on his chest, then hit again, by four officers. Next thing he knew, he felt himself being picked up by two officers, then swung back and forward a few times, before being tossed in the lake. He sunk to the bottom of the lake and crawled his way out, because he could not swim. He hid in the grass until the officers left, then walked home.

He called 9-11 which dispatched an ambulance but he said the ambulance refused to take him to the hospital. He said that the employees made him sign a form refusing service which was in english even though he spoke mostly spanish. His family came to see him and they tried again, and he spent eight days at the hospital recovering from injuries and pneumonia. It would be months before he could work in construction again. Martinez suffered from nightmares and other signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. So did most of the neighborhood, many living in fear that they too would receive visits from officers like Graham, Sykes and McQueen.

In 2001, the city of Riverside settled a law suit filed in U.S. District Court by Martinez for $550,000.


After the Fact:

Sykes had testified that he had arrived at Fairmount Park to clear it out since it was closed to the public, and had ran into the other two officers at a stop sign. The D.A. thanked Sykes for his testimony by granting permission for him to be sentenced by a judge to only three years of probation. The department fired Sykes on Dec. 9, 1997.

Graham plead guilty to felony charges in the Carlos O'Brian case and misdemeanor charges in the Lake Incident, and was sentenced to six months in jail. Only, a judge placed him in work detail instead of taking him into custody. Graham refused to pick weeds as part of his detail because he said he suffered from a wrist injury and was assigned to desk work for one day.

In June 1998, he surrendered to do time in jail, and three years later, he had his misdemeanor conviction in connection with the Lake Incident expunged along with one of his felony counts from the Carlos O'Brian case.

Martinez, his attorney Andrew Roth and others decried the wrist slappings given to two of the officers and the immunity deal given to the third. Perennial D.A. Grover Trask called the offenses by the officers, "borderline felonies" which was interpreted by most people to mean that if the officers had been civilians, they would have had the book thrown at them.

Eight years and a consent decree have passed since the Lake Incident, and many lessons have been learned and others still to be learned. To start with, one being when you hire police officers, hire them for the desired personality traits and skills necessary to do that job. Do not go looking for gridiron prowness and expect to find a mentally sound police candidate. Leave the football recruiting to the pros and stick to hiring people equipped to work as police officers.

As for the other lessons to be learned, the next opportunity for that was just around the bend...and three miles away from the lake.

Sources:

Press Enterprise articles dated: March 14, 1995, July 21, 1997, Jan. 29, 1998,Jan. 30, 1998, Feb. 10, 1998, Feb. 19-22, 1998.

The People of California vs Philip Graham, Tommie Sykes(Riverside County Superior Court)

The People of California vs Philip Graham(Riverside County Superior Court)
FELONY CASE

Jose Martinez Rodriguez vs the City of Riverside (U.S. District Court)

3 Comments:

Blogger Sandalou said...

You know that that lame brain is probably going to show up whining that Graham only got off because he was black. And that you're attempting to stir up old stuff that mostly didn't really happen that way because you don't have anything real to bitch about. With his allergies to scrutiny and honesty, he's not going to understand why this stuff should never be forgotten and the more attention the better.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005 2:16:00 AM  
Blogger Five Before Midnight said...

Yeah...Interestingly enough, there's another officer named Graham in the department who's seems pretty cool. He's been a sergeant forever though.


Well, there's a lot of myths floating around about this incident all these years. The Affirmative Action is bad, one. The attack being committed only by two Black officers, one. I too had underestimated McQueen's involvement until I did some more research. I didn't even realize he and Graham were the two who were partners at the time. He was a major participant, and he's treated like he wasn't even there, why's that you think?

And the judge who "accidently" stuck Graham in work detail....what can you say?

During the 1990s, according to some HR people I talked to, the hiring process for police officers(and even fire) was more lax, and if people wanted someone to be hired, they were hired. But I didn't know the football angle until I found the PE article, which dealt with several LE agencies besides the RPD. Hopefully with new staffing in HR and with more stringent requirements, that has changed.

Our city paid quite a bit in ahem, disability retirements trying to correct that past behavior. They paid quite a handsome sum in this case as well. And it was one of the cases which brought the feds and State AG in to investigate the agency in 1999.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005 11:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you ever heard of Bum Fights? I think those officers were just savvy entrepreneurs!!!!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005 5:01:00 PM  

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